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Part One: Community Group Essentials, Content & Atmosphere

November 4, 2020

David Clark identifies two community group essentials—content and atmosphere. 

Community groups are a critical part of a college ministry—they are a great “front door” for students who aren’t as interested in big events, and they give a new student a unique opportunity to grow in their faith directly alongside others who can help them and connect with them. There are, of course, a lot of ways that ministries approach their groups.

What do you call them? How “small” should they be? What material should they cover? What should be the flow of the meeting each week?

These questions seem to get asked over and over again and the good news is, there’s no right answer! For us at Challenge, we’ve come to our conclusions through a lot of trial and error – testing out methods and going with what works. I’ve been able to see the progression of these methods throughout my time of being around the ministry, both as a student and as a staff member. We’re at a place where we’re confident in the way that we operate community groups, but from week to week, we’re also careful to evaluate and refine the way the groups function, so that next week can be our best community group ever. I’d like to offer a “behind-the-scenes” look at our groups in hopes that you can benefit from it and apply some of its aspects in a way that glorifies God and richly draws students to Himself.

We boil it down to two essentials: content and atmosphere.


The content of Life Groups at Challenge CSUC has taken a variety of forms. Early on, when I was an attendee in these groups, we tried several video series’ and curriculums to lead students through over the course of a semester. We tried to make the most of it, but those methods didn’t yield very much impact. At this time, it’s hard to say whether they failed to be effective due to the nature of the material, or simply because our Life Groups were in a much more tenuous state in terms of attendance and momentum. Either way, we’ve opted for Bible-based content in our groups for the past several years, with no signs of stopping.

I think there are a few reasons why we believe in this method. Studying a book of the Bible from week to week provides a great environment to dive into the text and personally explore it to come up with applications. We go through a topical series throughout the semester in our Challenge large group meetings, so studying the Bible for our small groups helps give them a more intimate feel than the content they’re receiving outside of community groups. And for some, hosting a “good old fashioned Bible study” is more appealing than a curriculum-heavy lesson. Finally, reading the Bible each week for community groups works really well in a collegiate environment because you can repeat some of the most richly applicable books after every four years.


There are two types of students: those who like crowds, and those who don’t. Sometimes I show people a picture of one of our small groups, and they’re surprised to see thirty people in the picture. “That’s not a very small group,” they might say. But there is more to our approach than simply “get as many students in the house as possible”—there is vision that informs our method that goes beyond superficiality.

There is an inherently attractive quality in a big, party-sized group of people. Even an introverted student knows that a party with low attendance is, well… lame. Our small groups, of course, have experienced seasons of low attendance. But as we have grown, we’ve also avoided fragmenting the groups greatly so that they don’t suffer from a lack of momentum. Within the context of a Life Group, however (our freshman/sophomore group, for example), the leaders will split people into smaller groups for the purpose of discussing the Bible more intimately. We always have the guys and girls split up for discussion, and each gender could split into as many as three groups, depending on how many people show up. The party vibe as people walk in the door gives the small group an attractive face, and the relational small(er) groups that they study and discuss within keeps them coming back. The size of the group is an important factor that fits into the bigger picture of the community group’s overall atmosphere. You can check out my article “Creating a Culture of Inclusion” to get a better idea of what we’re looking for in a welcoming, fun environment for a student to feel that they belong in.

A Brief Life Group Walkthrough

Let me give you a picture of how these things fit together for our groups. Each week might be different, but here’s a rough sketch that we give to our leaders as a blueprint for Life Groups.

1. Leaders and assistant leaders meet
The students who lead our Life Groups also lead a team of up to ten additional student leaders from our Core Team. It’s not required, but it’s generally helpful for them to arrive at least half an hour before the Life Group begins so that they can set up, pray, and maybe run through the mixer before everyone else arrives.

2. People arrive
The first ten minutes of the appointed hour of Life Group might be dedicated only to letting people show up and engaging with them. If anybody brand new shows up, our leaders know better than to let them slip through the cracks. This is also a prime time to serve up a snack.

3. Mixer
I encourage the leaders to get creative with having a new mixer each week that is both fun and useful for getting to know people. Hopefully it doesn’t last for more than ten or so minutes.

4. Announcements
While everybody is still together as a big group, we take time to announce any important Challenge events coming up.

5. Discussion
The students break into groups that range between 5–15 people, they read the chapter together, and the leaders guide discussions that result in a personal application that each person can come up with and take home with them.

6. “Afterparty”
After the study, Life Group is essentially over, but the leaders are encouraged to hang out as long as they can and get to know people better. This time can be a great opportunity to build relationships on a more casual level.

The vision and strategies indicated here have been concocted over a long period of inward and outward growth. We’ve found these to be reliable systems of guiding our small groups so that they are consistently fun, engaging, and life-changing. I am still excited for the new ways God will use these groups in the future, as well as the ways they will evolve as we seek improvement, step by step. Like an archaeologist, there is much that I’ve discovered over the short while I’ve administrated our Life Groups—but I trust that there is much more to uncover as I grow and as Challenge grows.

Reflection Questions

  • What do you consider to be the pros and cons of using the Bible for community group content versus other materials?
  • What tweaks could you make to improve the atmosphere in your groups? What will be the optimum size for your groups this semester?
  • Do any elements of the “Life Group Walkthrough” stand out to you as things that you’d like to reevaluate for your ministry? If so, what?

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